On August 26, 1920, the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution went into effect, prohibiting all U.S. states and the Federal government from denying the right to vote to any U.S. citizen based on gender. In other words, women were given the right to vote. Previous attempts had failed. The Reconstruction era amendments to the U.S. Constitution did not include a prohibition to discriminate against women’s suffrage. Although the women’s suffrage movement first introduced a draft Constitutional amendment in 1878, they were unable to muster the needed Congressional and state legislature votes until 1920, 42 years later.

Another important advance for women was taking place during the same time, but in a different place. Sara Schenirer, born in 1883 in Krakow, Poland, to a family loyal to the Belzer Rebbe, observed that significant numbers of young Jewish women were leaving traditional Judaism. In her day, young Jewish women were raised by their mothers to become homemakers. Sara and her family relocated to Vienna during the World War I years where Sara was exposed to some of the more modern traditional views espoused by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the renowned rabbi in Frankfurt, Germany. The old formula, reasoned Sara, of women staying loyal to Jewish life without formal Jewish training, was no longer working, and she proposed a revolutionary idea in the Orthodox world: to provide girls and young women with a Jewish education. In 1917, Sara proposed opening schools for girls, but would not do so without the assent of the religious authorities of the day. Her brother encouraged her to approach the Belzer Rebbe (Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach – 1854-1927) about her idea. She went to see her Rebbe, who blessed her endeavor with the two words, “mazal ubracha,” best of luck and blessings — although the Rebbe was not yet ready to send the Belzer girls to Schenirer’s school. Eventually, Sara secured the endorsements of two other great rabbinic sages of that era: the Gerrer Rebbe, (Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter – 1866-1948 also known as the Imrei Emes) one of the leaders of the Hassidic world, and the Chofetz Chaim, the leader of Lithuanian Orthodox Jewry.

In 1917, Sara opened a kindergarten in her seamstress studio in Krakow, Poland, and twenty-five girls registered. Six years later, in 1923, Schenirer established a teachers’ seminary to train her staff for her burgeoning school. By 1939, there were 250 “Bais Yaakov” schools teaching 40,000 students.

When it comes to historical progress and evolution, context is very important. While traditional Jewish women’s formal education may only have begun in 1917, across the Atlantic, women only earned the right to vote constitutionally in 1920.

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